How to make a great short film
Just about every famous director started their career making short films. Steven Spielberg used to shoot his toy trains crashing into each other on his dad’s Super 8, and has evolved to become one of the greatest storytellers of our time.
But why do we make short films?
Well, they have many purposes. Yes, it can be used to tell a great short story (as, ideally, they all should), but you can shoot a short film to try out an idea, test a collaborative partnership, or try a new piece of equipment.
Peter Jackson, for example, put up a budget of around $1m to shoot his short film, Crossing the Line (2008), just so he could see how the then-new RED camera performed.
Before the age of the DSLR, I made a depth of field adaptor for my trusty Sony camcorder. Once built, it deserved its own short film with lots of dreamy bokeh. I developed my short, Headspace, purely to try out my new contraption.
More recently, a friend and filmmaking colleague launched into a feature film. After weeks of pre-production and a week or so of shooting, she discovered that she simply could not get on with her producer. The two fought like cat and dog and the whole production came to a halt. Had they made a short film together first, they would have surely discovered their artistic differences at a much lower cost, and could have avoided all the expense and misery inflicted on themselves (and their cast and crew).
So just how do you make a great short film?
Well, it simply must begin with a great script. I urge you to read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler to get a handle on the basics of what makes a good story.
In a nutshell, there are character archetypes your story needs to have (hero, mentor, shadow, et al) and a number of stages your hero must go through to have a full and satisfying journey. The best films, of course, are those where our hero undergoes change. If that sounds rather formulaic, it isn’t. Honest!
Cast and crew
Once you have your rollercoaster script, you then need to assemble your cast and crew.
Please, don’t cast your family and friends. Unless you know they have good acting qualities, don’t bother approaching them. Your efforts will be a waste of time. Instead, contact your local acting group, or websites like starnow.com where you can find more viable talent. When casting, get your auditioning actor to give their interpretation of your script first. Then, tell them to try it another way (sadder, happier, quieter, louder – whatever). If they cannot take direction, do not cast them.
Most short films do not make money. Assuming then you are not going to pay your actors, you should do two things. You should feed and water them during your shoot (it’s only fair), and you should offer them a deferred-payment contract – especially if you are shooting a speculative pilot episode for a TV show. If you contact your local Equity office (or go to their website) they will have sample deferred-payment contracts to give to your actors. Treat your actors well and they will give you their all. Show them that you’re serious about rewarding them should your project turn a dollar or two. It makes you look more professional (because you are).
So when you come to shoot your actors – make sure you use a tripod. If you must have that shaky, handheld look, then at least put the camera on a monopod to give it some stability. It’s amazing just how much more professional a shot looks just because the camera is steady.
When framing your shots, learn the rule of thirds. Always check your frame composition before you hit record – just make sure that what you see in the viewfinder is pleasing to the eye. You can also ‘dirty the frame’ by have something in the foreground that is out of focus to give depth and more appeal to your image.
These days, good lighting can be achieved real cheap. I started with 500w work lights for $30 from a local hardware store. Today there are low cost LED lights which really are very effective. I use 800w redheads, Fresnels and have a few PAR lamps (stage lights). I also use these little 50w halogen ‘clamp-on’ lights – perfect for throwing a bit of light on a wall in the background.
Sound is paramount. Your audience will forgive a poor picture, but never poor sound. Get a good quality shotgun condenser microphone (and a digital recorder if you cannot connect it via XLR to your camera) and get it as close as you can to your actors without it being in shot. Don’t exclude ADR as a possibility – get your cast into the recording studio after filming is completed to re-record their dialogue. It will do wonders for your production values.
Editing is a polarising experience. My students either love it or hate it. Find a good editing program you can use and be happy with it (i.e. it makes sense to you). When it comes to laying music, avoid using copyrighted material. Go and find a good, cheap or free source of royalty-free music online. They’re out there.
Finally, don’t forget your audience. Don’t go making a 20-minute film of curtains blowing in the breeze to make an artistic point. Give your audience a good, well-paced story that keeps them wanting to know one thing: What happens next?
About the Author
Ian Nicholson is a member of the Australian Cinematographers Society and teaches short film making at the Sydney Short Film School in Sydney, Australia.
He has made over 30 short films since 2006 as writer, director, director of photography (sometimes all three). In 2007, he shot and helped direct Between the Flags by Jayce White that won Best Comedy and Best Male Actor at Tropfest 2007. Today, his short films are regularly broadcast on TV and cable in Australia and New Zealand. One of his films, Haunted Australia, was chosen as an opener for the Night of Horror International Film Festival in 2008 and his 25-minute zombie horror Dead Minds was selected for the Night of Horror International Film Festival in 2009. He is the founder of the Sydney Film Industry Meetup Group, which currently has over 600 members.